It is probably the strangest embassy in the world.
The expansive grounds of the Israeli Embassy in the Shola district of Addis Ababa are filled daily with thousands of Jews, waiting patiently, with a sad and quiet air, for documents to be completed, for forms to be stamped, for the moment when they will reach the Promised Land.
They have waited for 2,000 years in the mountains of Gondar province, and now they are waiting in the plains of Addis Ababa. For a while, word had spread that salvation was near, that all they needed was to rush to the capital, some 450 miles south of Gondar, and that the next stop would be Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv.
But the dream is slow to materialize. The gates of Ethiopia open slowly, much too slowly for the 16-year-old girl who was torn away from her parents three years ago, and for the father who, longing to see his three children in Israel, lost two others on the way.
Recently emigration from Ethiopia has picked up, with weekly flights of some 200 olim on board. But some 20,000 Ethiopian Jews are still crowded in Addis Ababa, waiting.
Waiting has become a mode of life for the Jews in Addis Ababa. They spend their days trudging from their miserable living quarters to the Israeli Embassy or to the health clinic operated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. They search here and there for some form of employment, then return back to their shacks, huts or cellars to continue waiting.
LIVING IN INHUMAN CONDITIONS
The most striking fact about the gathering at the embassy compound is how quiet these people are, how patient — as if they are saying to themselves: “We have waited this long, we can wait longer. At the end of the road, we know, there is home, there is Eretz Yisrael.”
But if the emigration process is not speeded up, if the exit visas are not increased, it will take two more years before all the Ethiopian Jews are reunited with their families in Israel.
They now live everywhere in the Ethiopian capital, under conditions hardly fit for human beings: cellars, storage places and sometimes animal quarters that profit-minded Ethiopians have turned into so-called living quarters, in exchange for an inflated rent.
Every morning the Ethiopian Jews flock to the embassy compound, desperately trying to push forward their exodus. They sit for hours on end on the rough terrain around the embassy building, waiting to be seen by Israeli officials.
An official sits in a “tukul” — a wooden hut with a straw roof — and interviews potential emigrants to verify their Jewishness and the exact size of their family.
So the entire family shows up at the embassy grounds, waiting for a turn to enter the tukul and make sure that the forms have been filled out properly. They pray that this magic document will bring them closer to their destination.
Others wait to receive their monthly allowance of approximately $50 per individual, covering food and rent. It is provided by Almaya, an Israeli non-profit agency that receives funds from the United Jewish Appeal via the Joint Distribution Committee.
At the other end of the compound lies the community center. Consisting of 27 tukuls housing some 4,000 children in four shifts, it provides the best alternative to a school in this environment of constant waiting, an escape from home.
TALES TOLD BEFORE BEDTIME
With the climate here that of almost perpetual spring, attending classes in the tukuls is like studying in the bosom of Mother Nature. For young Ethiopian Jews, this is the only reminder of their school back home in Gondar province.
Sometimes they miss it. The life they left was not that bad. It had the serenity of the country and was isolated from the outside world.
For Walla Lao, 11, now a student at the cultural center in the embassy compound, reality was there, in the village of Ambover up north.
Eretz Yisrael was just a dream, the subject of tales to be told before bedtime. Father used to work in the field, growing wheat, corn, barley and teff, the local cereal grain that yields fine, white flour and is used to make the local beer.
For Walla, it has been an endless journey. He was 5 years old when it all began. Suddenly, word spread that the gates had opened and one could go to Israel. The family quickly sold all its property to go to Israel.
But then, when the government halted the exit of Ethiopia’s Jews, the travel plans were called off, and the family was left without its house and without the means to cultivate the land and make a living.
With the money the family had saved, it bought a few oxen and household goods, rented a house and tried to return to business as usual.
But last year, the community was again shaken with news of a new wave of aliyah. Members of the Lao family rented an apartment in the provincial town of Gondar, from where they hoped to fly to Addis Ababa. But it would be another six months of impatient waiting before they could board a plane for the Ethiopian capital.
THEY THOUGHT SALVATION WAS NEAR
Once there, the Lao family thought salvation was just around the corner. Like so many others, they believed that once they arrived in the capital, it was only a matter of days before they could set out on the last stretch of their dream-come-true and fly to Israel.
Walla had left friends behind; others had parted beforehand. He was only 10, and his entire childhood world was falling apart.
But now, still waiting for the plane to Israel eight months later, he says he does not mind. “It was not difficult to leave, because Eretz Yisrael is a holy country, and I already wanted to come.”
Like the rest of the Jewish refugee community here, Walla’s father has rented a room from a local Ethiopian family — one room for a family of 12.
In the early days of their wait, they had electricity, but then the power supply was cut off. They get their water from a tap used by several families.
Walla’s father works as an attendant at the community center, while his mother spends most of her time at home, sick. Now they are looking for another place to stay, slightly more spacious.
For the Lao family, the dream of reaching Israel has not yet been realized. Their exodus from Ethiopia is just beginning.